The Rise of Japan

When it comes to rapid world-changing events, the Meiji Restoration has few equals.

Meiji, Emperor of Japan, and the imperial family, woodcut, late 19th century. (Getty Images)A US fleet under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Edo Bay in 1853. Its presence confirmed what Japan’s leaders had suspected for some time: that their isolation from the world had caused them to fall behind the West, technologically and industrially. Perry’s culture shock led to a profound shift.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, one of those events of enormous consequence, misunderstood in the West, when it is known at all. In 1868, the Tokugawa Shogun, or Great General, who had been the dominant figure during Japan’s long period of feudalism, was replaced by an emperor, who took the name Meiji, or ‘Enlightened Ruler’. A weak, largely agricultural country, bound internally by the predations of the samurai warrior class and externally by stifling treaties urged on them by the UK and the US, began a swift rise to development, symbolised by the banning of the samurai’s sword and his ‘top knot’ hairstyle. By the time of the emperor’s death in 1912, Japan had a constitution that established parliamentary democracy, benefited from a fine education system with an emphasis on science – which remains true to this day – and, as Tsarist Russia discovered to its cost in 1905, had developed a ruthless, modern and highly mobile army and navy.

Japan’s militarisation would ultimately be its undoing. Short of natural resources, Japan followed the major European powers in imperialist endeavour. Its behaviour in China – most appallingly, the Rape of Nanjing – was met with international condemnation and allowed the established powers to oppose the ‘upstart’. History Today readers will know how that ended

Yet Japan, which unlike most developed countries, remains a largely homogeneous society, demographically challenged and environmentally fragile, lies behind only China and the US in terms of economic power. It is hard to credit that its path to modernity began just 150 years ago.